Image: Fire and Mello
Martin Oeser  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Scientists Andrew Z. Fire, left, and Craig C. Mello were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their pioneering work in molecular biology and genetic information, the Nobel jury said.
updated 10/10/2006 8:19:16 PM ET 2006-10-11T00:19:16

Americans Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for discovering a powerful way to turn off the effect of specific genes, opening a potential new avenue for fighting diseases as diverse as cancer and AIDS.

The process, called RNA interference, also is being studied for treating such conditions as hepatitis virus infection and heart disease. It is already widely used in basic science as a method to study the function of genes.

Fire, 47, of Stanford University, and Mello, 45, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, published their seminal work in a 1998 paper.

RNA interference occurs naturally in plants, animals and humans. The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, which awarded the $1.4 million prize, said it is important for regulating the activity of genes and helps defend against viral infection. The two scientists will share the prize money.

“This year’s Nobel laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information,” the institute said.

Erna Moller, a member of the Nobel committee, said their research helped shed new light on a complicated process that had confused researchers for years.

“It was like opening the blinds in the morning,” she said. “Suddenly you can see everything clearly.”

Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md., which has funded work by Fire and Mello for years, said he predicted the two men would win this year.

“It’s an example of a discovery of a fundamental biological process that has an almost unlimited number of implications,” Berg said. “The impact has just been steadily growing.”

Genes produce their effect by sending molecules called messenger RNA to the protein-making machinery of a cell. In RNA interference, certain molecules trigger the destruction or inactivation of RNA from a particular gene, so that no protein is produced. Thus the gene is effectively silenced.

For instance, a gene causing high blood cholesterol levels was recently shown to be silenced in animals through RNA interference.

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“This has been such a revolution in biomedicine, everybody is using it,” said Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for which Mello is an investigator.

“It’s so important that people almost take it for granted already, even though it was discovered fairly recently,” he said.

The prize for Mello and Fire did come remarkably quickly after they did the work. Nobels are generally given decades after the research they honor.

Mello, reached at his home in Shrewsbury, Mass., said the award came as a “big surprise.”

“I knew it was a possibility, but I didn’t really expect it for perhaps a few more years. Both Andrew and I are fairly young, 40 or so, and it’s only been about eight years since the discovery.”

He said he would try to get to work Monday but expected to accomplish “not a lot.”

Fire, reached in California, said he was awakened by a call from the Nobel committee.

‘At first I was very excited.... Then I thought I must be dreaming or maybe it was the wrong number,” he said. But then he confirmed the good news by checking the Nobel Web site.

“It makes me feel great. It makes me feel incredibly indebted at the same time,” he said. “You realize how many other people have been major parts of our efforts.”

Fire conducted his research while at the Washington-based Carnegie Institution.

The announcement opened this year’s series of prize announcements. It will be followed by Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

Last year’s medicine prize went to Australians Barry J. Marshall and Robin Warren for discovering that bacteria, not stress, causes ulcers.

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in his will in the categories of literature, peace, medicine, physics and chemistry. The economics prize is technically not a Nobel but a 1968 creation of Sweden’s central bank.

Winners receive a check, handshakes with Scandinavian royalty, and a banquet on Dec. 10 — the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896. All prizes are handed out in Stockholm except for the peace prize, which is presented in Oslo.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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